Monday, September 29, 2008

You Can Be a Tourist, Not a "Traveler"

I took my Grand Tour when I was 20. I strapped on a backpack, bought a copy of Let's Go Europe and a Eurail pass, and went. I spent months eating bread, cheese, and meat; laundering my underwear in communal hostel sinks; gorging myself on cathedral art and chocolate; and generally doing what I insisted was Travel, Not Tourism. It was the time of my life.

Night conversations in the hostels usually revolved around where to find booze, the places to "do" next, and reveling in the idea that one really could "do" Europe on $25 a day. All of we hostel folks would shake our heads at the idea of traveling the conventional way, our parents' way, with suitcases and hotels and rented cars and stuffy Fodor's books. I swore I'd travel this way forever and always.

I just went to Europe again and did the unthinkable. I rented a car, I brought a suitcase with wheels, I stayed in hotels and ate at restaurants for nearly every meal. The only locals I met were a museum curator and a fellow at the train station who loaned me his cell phone for a call. And yet I managed to learn more about Slovenia in my ten days there then I did about, say, Italy in the three weeks I'd spent there twelve years earlier. More than that: I slept on my own schedule; I didn't have to wash my underwear in a sink; I ate carefully prepared local food that extended beyond meat and cheese. Somewhere along the line, I'd become a tourist, not a traveler, with my fancy camera and a guidebook that featured bars that weren't mobbed by American college students looking for a deal.

Somewhere along the line, I'd become an adult.

I can't say there isn't a part of me that doesn't long for the heady sort of way I made my way around Europe back then. But I also know that even though I told myself I was soaking up culture, I was really insulating myself in the hostel circuit and supplanting it with the attentions of local men. I think back to a delectable seafood pizza I had on a pier in Naples, then recall told by the fellow who had taken me there that I was expected to pay for that meal by doing "what American girls do when you come here looking for fun." I think of wiling away the night at a Roman wine bar, then looking around at other patrons and seeing withered copies of Let's Go adorning two of the tables. I think of arriving in a strange city after dark and not being able to find a place to stay that I could afford, and having to get back on the train just so I could sleep, winding up in a different world.

Exhilarating? Yes, in a way. But so was driving into a tourist farm in Slovenia, being treated to a glass of wine produced on the farm by the owner (who had no expectation that I would sleep with her), digging into a delicious meal that was, yes, local, and falling asleep in front of Slovenian television. A quieter magic.

I couldn't have afforded it financially at 20; I wouldn't have appreciated it either. But it's open to me now. And I'll take it.